NEWCASTLE’S Laing Art Gallery has emerged from lockdown with a stunning exhibition placing the spotlight on four woman artists who began to flourish in the early decades

of the 20th century.

Challenging Convention, brilliantly curated by the Laing’s keeper of art Lizzie Jacklin, features 60 works of Vanessa

Bell (1879-1961), Laura Knight (1877-1970), Gwen John (1876-1939) and Dod Procter (1890-1972), drawn from up to 30 lenders.

The artists were contemporaries, living in times of enormous changes and the exhibition highlights the strides they made in a male-dominated field.

Gwen John, sister of the celebrated painter Augustus John, found fame while living and working in Paris. She preferred solitude and avoided “family conventions and ties”, yet forged intense friendships and had love affairs with fellow artists, including the sculptor August Rodin, for whom she modelled.

One of the most evocative works on display is A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, painted as her affair with Rodin was coming to an end.

A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, 1907-1909 (oil on canvas) by Gwen John (1876-1939). National Museum Wales, National Museum Cardiff. Photo credit Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, 1907-1909 (oil on canvas) by Gwen John Photo: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Vanessa Bell, sister of the writer Virginia Woolf, is recognised as one of the most experimental British painters of the period. She was married to the art critic Clive Bell and the couple’s house at Gordon Square became a focal point of the artistic circle known as The Bloomsbury Group.

Her personal life was unconventional by the standards of the time. She had two sons with her husband, and a daughter with the artist Duncan Grant, whose lovers were usually men.

Included in the exhibition is a portrait of the writer Mary Hutchinson; who was the mistress of Bell’s husband. Titled Mrs St John Hutchinson, it is clear she did not set out to flatter her sitter, writing at the time: “It’s perfectly hideous ...and yet quite recognisable’. The painting’s charm lays in wonderfully composed balance

of colours and geometric forms.

The Tub by Vanessa

The Tub, Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), Tate © estate of Vanessa Bell

Laura Knight was a prolific artist who developed her skills in an artistic colony at Staithes, in North Yorkshire. She will be familiar to visitors to the Laing, which has a good holding of her works.

She was only the second woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Academy, 168 years after the first, and was first woman to be elected a full Royal Academician, in 1936.

Knight was well known for capturing women working on the home front during the Second World War. Taking centre stage here is A Balloon Site, Coventry, from the Imperial War Museum collection.

3727451 A Balloon Site, Coventry, 1943 (oil on canvas) by Knight, Laura (1877-1970); 102.5x127 cm; Imperial War Museum, London, UK; ( A barrage balloon being hoisted into position by WAAF women in blue overalls. Coventry is visible in the

A Balloon Site, Coventry, 1943. Laura Knight: Imperial War Museum, London, UK / Bridgeman Images

Her interest in ballet is reflected in The Ballet Shoe, an exquisite composition of ballerina Lydia Lokopova, whom she befriended and painted several times.

A summer tour with a circus company resulted in a series of colourful paintings, including The Three Clowns, and one can’t help but be drawn to Knight’s A Dark Pool, which depicts a lone figure in a landscape, with her vivid dress billowing in the breeze.

Dod Procter lived most of her life in Newlyn, Cornwall, and painted beauty still lifes, some

of which are featured here.

Her most arresting works are her realistic depictions of young women, including Early Morning, which is a smaller version of her most famous painting Morning – voted picture of the year at the 1927 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and purchased for the nation.

Fisherman’s daughter Cissie Barnes, who posed for both paintings, is also captured in

Girl in Blue.

The exhibition does full justice to these incredible artists and a visit should be on every art lover’s to-do list.

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